Noe Valley Voice March 2008

How Green Is My Valley: Drought-Tolerant Gardening Becomes Us

By Hilary Gordon

It's spring again, and Noe Valley is awash with blossoms. Fragrant plum trees trail petals like purple thunderclouds, and fuzzy yellow acacias coat cars in drifts of pollen. It's also the first spring for all the new trees planted last year on 24th Street. We're getting our first look at the pears, cherries, and magnolias as they begin to bloom and grow.

Fabulous Noe Valley Plant of the Month

In front of the new Droubi real estate office on the south side of 24th Street above Castro (4157 24th Street) is a small landscaped area. A tall, thin Azara microphylla tree, also known as a boxleaf azara, has been planted close to the Victorian next-door. The tree has performed beautifully in a dark, cramped spot. Pruned to fit a difficult space, it has kept a graceful habit, and its small leaf size makes the narrow space seem larger than it is.

Photo by Pamela Gerard

As neighbors, we are pitching in to take care of the greenbelt formed by our back yards, street trees, and parks. The flower boxes at our windows, and the vines blooming on our deck railings are home and food for birds and bees. Trees are breathing in carbon and breathing out oxygen, cleaning our air. They are absorbing traffic noise, and planting a little peace and beauty in our lives.

My own gardening roots go back to the spring of 1980. That was the year my roommate and I attempted our first planting. Petunias were blooming in six-packs at the nursery, and we took some home. We planted them in fierce little rows, like petunia soldiers, but within just a few days the snails and slugs had laid our regiment to waste.

The petunias were history, but I was hooked. In 1984 I quit my office job and began taking horticulture classes at City College. Soon I had a gardening business, and had the opportunity to work in others' gardens as well.

Between raising two kids with my husband, keeping a home, and working as a gardener, it seemed like I barely had a moment to catch my breath. But now my kids are grown and I have time for a new project. I'm grateful to the Voice for allowing me to share some of what I've learned "on the ground" about gardening here in Noe Valley.

Our microclimate has its own rhythms and beauties, and its own problems, like fog, drought, and petunia-eating snails and slugs. It's also a new millennium, and we're faced with ecological realities that didn't restrict gardeners in the past. However, this brings new meaning to the decisions we make about our gardens, whether they are a window box, a back yard, a sidewalk tree, a community garden plot, or a city park. Each of us can have an impact on how our neighborhood fits into the natural world.

Dry Can Be Beautiful

In California, water use becomes a bigger issue with each passing year. As with fossil fuels, we need to be mindful of our finite water supply. We can have absolutely splendid gardens while conserving water if we choose at least some plants that are drought-tolerant. This doesn't mean that we have to give up roses and fruit trees. It just means we need to start picking more plants that do not need irrigation.

For many people, "drought-tolerant plant" summons up an image of a prickly cactus and a dusty bare landscape. But many garden favorites, such as lavender, rosemary, sages, rockroses, and cheerful daisies are as tough and drought-tolerant as any saguaro. Our Mediterranean climate, with its wet, mild winters and dry, cool summers, is actually preferred by many beautiful, colorful, and dramatic plants, which grow without any summer irrigation.

Some of these are unusual and striking exotic species such as leucadendrons, grevilleas, phormiums, and coprosmas. While these names sound impossible, just imagine brilliant foliage of burgundy, pink, yellow, or silver; shapes with arching curves and upright assertiveness; and strange flowers with shapes from a dream.

Many native California plants have adapted to survive our annual drought. Some of these are blooming now, such as silk tassel bush, flowering currant, and California lilac. Others will bloom later, such as Matilija Island poppy, flannel bush, and evening primroses.

To see a wonderful assortment of native plants, many with labels, take a walk to the last block of Corwin Street at the northwest edge of Noe Valley. There you will find a charming community-maintained native garden above the Seward Street slides.

A Place in the Sun

So if you get inspired some spring morning, choose a spot in your garden, preferably a sunny spot such as a south-facing fence, to create a drought-tolerant planting bed. A street tree space or container can work just as well.

Loosen the soil and remove any weeds. Carefully dig up any desirable plants that depend on regular summer water, and relocate them elsewhere in the garden.

Check for drainage by digging a hole, filling it with water, and making sure the water level goes down steadily until the hole is empty. Most drought-tolerant plants cannot survive in boggy, poorly drained soil.

Next, take a trip to a local plant nursery and pick out a beautiful drought-tolerant plant. Or two or three! Some are mentioned above, but any nursery professional can direct you to good choices. Many plant nurseries group their drought-tolerant plants together.

Your drought-tolerant bed will require occasional deep watering this summer, but next summer it should be ready to weather a dry season without additional water. For a neater appearance and longer bloom, you might want to give your drought-tolerant plants a soaking once or twice during the dry season, but when water rationing is here again, your drought-tolerant bed should stay healthy with no irrigation.

March is a great time for planting. Have fun!